“Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have” (Frost, p. 77-78). This is a quote from Robert Frost’s “Education by Poetry” speech that he gave in 1930, (later published in the Amherst Graduates Quarterly the following year). The poet staunchly believed that reading and writing poetry foster thought and imagination. Even though Frost addressed this notion over ninety years ago, this idea still holds true as readers of poetry continue to analyze literary devices and word choice to uncover the intent of a poem. As poetry evolves with the times through its messages and language structure, students today can approach poetry to explore and further their own understanding of society and themselves. This exploration is seen in novels written in verse—a collection of poems that progress together as an entire story.
In novels written in verse, an entire story arc is conveyed through a collection of poems. Analogous to chapters in a novel, the poems range in length in accordance with the pacing of the story. The integration of the young adult narrative into poetry creates reads that are fast-paced with deliberate and creative word choice, portraying emotional growth that is relatable to students. Books written in verse can be added to the classroom library for independent reading or included in a reading unit. For recommendations, check out our Novels in Verse Reading List (Grades 5-12).
Focus on Language
“A critical value of poetry in reading instruction is that it focuses the reader’s attention on the language used” (Nichols et al., 2018, p. 391). When we focus on language as we read, we are paying attention to things like word choice, sentence structure, and literary devices. The role of language is one of the factors that differentiates poetry from prose. Language in poetry is part of the story. It is on equal grounds with the story itself. Poetry reading allows students to interact with rhyme schemes, language structures, and word choice. (It is important to note that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme; free verse, in fact, is a genre of poetry that does not have any rhyme scheme or meter. It can provide space for students to explore a range of poetic writing styles). Due to the artistic freedom that poetry reflects, the language structures are unique to each collection, requiring readers to reflect on the language structure and word choice used. Often, the word count is constrained by meter or rhythm, prompting the poet to choose their language very carefully while still maintaining the essence of the poem’s intended message. These carefully chosen words depict very specific emotions and scenes.
Support Student Motivation and Interest
Reading depends largely on motivation, which relies on one’s dedication to furthering their learning. As Cambria and Guthrie (2010) describe, “The reason to read in this case is the students’ belief that reading is important” (p. 18). One way to promote motivation and dedication to reading is to provide students with a range of books to choose from that cover topics that are relevant to students and connect to their interests (Kamil, 2008). Additionally, students may be motivated to read novels in verse because of their fast pace and relatable YA voice. The unique relatability of novels in verse is an application of Rudine Sims Bishop’s assertion that books can be “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” When books are windows, they let readers look into a world that is different from their own, like opening a window and looking out. When books serve as mirrors, they are reflective of the readers themselves—the reader feels that the story is relatable. Lastly, books can be seen as sliding glass doors when they immerse the reader in the world the author has created. Being able to see themselves or empathize with a character in a novel can promote the dedication that a student needs. Finding the genre or writing style that interests students may transform reading into an intrinsic dedication—a desire to read for enjoyment beyond the assigned readings in the classroom.
The core elements of reading can be reinforced through poetry instruction as well. One of the core elements of reading identified by the National Reading Panel is vocabulary. It is also one of the strands of the Scarborough Rope model of reading that contributes to language comprehension. Students can develop their vocabulary skills through poetry analysis. Lessons with a focus on precise language, synonyms, and antonyms can provide students with clarity on the effectiveness of vocabulary. A lesson on word choice outlines when a word should or should not be used and how context can shift the meaning of the word.
For example, for a secondary classroom that is reading The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, the teacher can lead a lesson on word choice and how the words in the poem work individually and together to describe Xiomara’s perspective and the emotional journey that she experiences throughout the novel. The stanza when Xiomara finds her voice to speak against her mother can be analyzed at the word level:
“Burn it! Burn it.
This is where the poems are,” I say,
thumping a fist against my chest.
“Will you burn me, too?” (Acevedo, 2018, p. 308)
From this excerpt, the class can hold a discussion as to how the word “burn” holds the betrayal and independence that Xiomara experiences—the empowerment the teen gets from finally speaking her mind. This heart-wrenching scene draws upon literal and literary meanings in order to showcase its message; her mother literally burned her poems, which are Xiomara’s soul laid bare, so Xiomara feels as though she is figuratively being burned alive. Explicit discussion of literal and figurative meanings will develop students’ comprehension of the selection of poems and/or excerpts being covered.
Consider Literary Devices and Metaphors
Another core component of reading is verbal reasoning, which is the ability to understand figurative language like metaphors, similes, and idioms. Teachers can support students’ development of verbal reasoning by pairing poetry instruction with close reading. Due to the concise narrative that poetry holds, students can zero in on specific stanzas to consider literary devices and metaphors. For example, for a class reading A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, students will be diving into a novel that revolves around injury recovery and dance. Through the imagery and emotional awakening for the characters and the readers, students can be taught to read the poems with a focus on unpacking the metaphors on the page. For example, when Veda suddenly realizes the consequences of her injury, this metaphor strikes a chord: “My heart feels like it’s at absolute zero”(Venkatraman, 2014). In science, absolute zero is the lowest temperature possible, meaning that particles stop moving. In the literary sense, it could be interpreted to mean that the anger and fear knocked out her optimism and made her numb to the possibility of joy–immobilizing her completely. By unpacking literary devices, readers can gain a broader understanding of the power of word choice. As Nichols et al. (2018) note, “Poetry lends itself to critical thinking, analysis, and the study of literary techniques and devices”(p. 393). Similarly, the Iowa Core Literacy standards require students to “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings”(RL.7.4). Participating in a close reading of a poetic text can broaden readers’ understandings of literal and underlying messages.
Given the benefits of teaching poetry, we have created a recommended list of novels in verse to share with students.
Novels in Verse Reading List (Grades 5-12)
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (grades 9-12)
Xiomara’s mother has a strict outlook on how she should behave and speak. Feeling silenced and misunderstood, Xiomara writes poems about everything she wishes she could say but knows that she can’t, from her love of writing poetry to faith, friendships, and boys.
House Arrest by K.A. Holt (grades 5-8)
Timothy is a twelve-year-old boy who gets caught stealing a wallet and is put under a year of house arrest. The court orders him to write a journal. Through his journal entries, readers discover that Timothy decided to steal because he was desperate to help his family and his sick baby brother. During this year, Timothy is under constant pressure and just wants his mom to be happy and his baby brother to be healthy.
Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood (grades 5-8)
Based on a true story, Ken is one of the many children who were supposed to be sent to safety from England to Canada during World War II. However, the ship he was traveling on gets torpedoed, and the children on lifeboat 12 are trying to make it to neutral territory.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (grades 5-8)
Hà and her family immigrate from Vietnam to the United States during the 1970s. Hà faces challenges that she steadily overcomes: learning English, navigating the culture of the American South, and making friends.
The Magical Imperfect by Chris Baron (grades 5-7)
This book is a story about friendship, community, Filipino culture, Jewish heritage, and mental health. Etan works at a grocery store and is sent on deliveries to a house in the woods where Malia lives. Due to her severe eczema, Malia can’t be out in the sun and has been bullied for her skin condition. Etan and Malia become friends and try to help each other become more confident and pursue their passions even if not everyone is supportive.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (grades 7-12)
Camino lives in the Dominican. Yahaira lives in New York. Their lives suddenly intersect when their father passes away in a plane crash. The two girls discover that they are sisters, though each girl had been kept a secret by their father. Once the two meet, they find out more about who their father was and discover that maybe he wasn’t as perfect as they thought he was.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (grades 6-12)
This story is based on Woodson’s own life. She describes what it was like growing up in the 1960s in the South where Jim Crow laws were in place. She writes about her experiences moving from state to state and explains how moving impacted her through the different stages of her life.
Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson (grades 5-7)
Lonnie Collins Motions (nickname Locomotion) has been put in the foster system and separated from his younger sister. Full of anger, Lonnie acts out. A teacher introduces poetry as an outlet for his emotions, and it’s exactly what Lonnie needs.
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman (grades 6-12)
Veda is a dance prodigy in India, and her entire life has revolved around it. When an accident leaves her with a prosthetic leg, Veda can’t accept a life without dance. She goes back to the basics and pursues dancing with all her might.
The beauty of poetry is that it doesn’t have to have a singular meaning. The reader doesn’t have to come to the same conclusion as the poet intended. The poet provides the story, the structure, and the vocabulary. It is up to the reader to take these components and find what the metaphors mean to them. The expansion of poetry into novels written in verse opens doors for readers to explore word choice and literary devices in a way that only poetry can provide. Through reading and discussing poetry, students can reflect on the value of language usage, as well as how it impacts their views on the world and themselves.
Supplemental Materials for Teachers
Acevedo, E. (2018). The poet X. HarperTeen.
Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3). https://scenicregional.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass-Doors.pdf
Cambria, J., & Guthrie, J. (2010). Motivating and engaging students in reading. The NERA Journal, 46(1). https://webcapp.ccsu.edu/u/faculty/TurnerJ/NERA-V46-N1-2010.pdf#page=22
Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A practice guide (NCEE 2008-4027). National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc
Nichols, W. D., Rasinski, T. V., Rupley, W. H., Kellogg, R. A., & Paige, D. D. (2018). Why poetry for reading instruction? Because it works! International Literacy Association, 72(3), 389-397. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1734
Venkatraman, P. (2014). A time to dance. Nancy Paulsen Books.